Of course you knew that the newborn phase was going to be rough, with lots of sleepless nights and early mornings. But no one prepared you for the toddler years. Bedtime stalling, nap refusal, escaping from the crib, 5 a.m. wakeups… all of these (highly annoying) behaviors are common sleep issues that come up with kids ages 1 to 3. Fortunately, these problems are fixable—provided you know what to do, that is. Enter our complete guide to toddler sleep, designed to help you and your little sleep thief catch some much needed zzz’s.
Everything You Need to Know About Toddlers and Sleep (Including Why They Just Won’t Freakin’ Do It Already)
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Meet the Experts:
- Cara Walker is a sleep consultant, mom-of-three and founder of Well Rested Mama, a childhood sleep consultancy firm based in Clearwater, FL that specializes in creating personalized sleep training plans for infants and toddlers.
- Jessica Berk is a certified toddler sleep consultant and founder of Awesome Little Sleepers whose toddler sleep course has transformed sleep for thousands of families nationwide. She has two kids and lives in Southport, CT.
- Elizabeth King is a mom-of-three, sleep consultant and founder of Sleep Baby, a pediatric sleep consultancy firm based in Charlotte, NC that has worked with thousands of families worldwide.
- Dr. Nicole Sheldon is a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital New Orleans. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin and received a medical degree from the University of Queensland School of Medicine in Brisbane, Australia.
- Dr. Natalie Barnett is VP of clinical research at Nanit, a tech company that provides products and services for parents to monitor their baby’s health, safety and well-being.
How Much Sleep Do Toddlers Need?
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, toddlers should sleep 11 to 14 hours per 24 hours (including naps) on a regular basis to promote optimal health. Kids this age typically take one to two daytime naps, with most toddlers dropping down to one nap by 18 months.
And making sure that your toddler clocks in those hours is kind of a big deal. As Dr. Sheldon explains, “sleep is a critical time for memory, functioning and growth in toddlers.” Indeed, research has shown that kids who get enough shuteye have improved attention, behavior, cognitive performance, and overall better mental and physical health. On the flipside, every parent knows that when your toddler doesn’t get enough sleep, it’s…not good. “Toddlers are also far better able to regulate their emotions when they are well-rested and can be far more likely to throw tantrums when they are tired and can easily become irritable and unfocussed,” says Dr. Barnett. (Cue the major meltdown because a banana broke in half.) “There is also evidence that sleep can help support the immune system making them better able to fight infections,” she adds.
What Time Should Toddlers Go to Bed?
Bedtime for toddlers should be somewhere between 7 to 8 p.m., Cara Walker from Well Rested Mama tells us. Indeed, research shows that a bedtime before 9 p.m. for this particular age group promotes better sleep quality.
But how achievable is a 7 p.m. bedtime for toddlers, really? When we surveyed 40 parents about their toddler’s sleep behaviors, we found that most kids (68 percent) were actually going to bed within that range. However, more than a quarter of respondents (27 percent) were putting their kids to bed at 8 p.m. or later, and a small number of kids (6 percent) were hitting the hay before 7 p.m.
What Time Should Toddlers Wake Up?
For better or for worse, there’s a pretty wide range when it comes to toddler wake-up times. Per Walker, most kids ages 1 to 3 will get up sometime between 6 and 8 a.m. (In other words, your kid’s habit of waking up at 6:05 a.m. every morning may be annoying, but is in fact perfectly normal.)
Our survey reflects this, with most respondents (47 percent) saying their toddlers are up between 6 and 7 a.m. Forty percent of those surveyed told us their toddlers wake up sometime between 7 and 8 a.m., and a lucky few get to sleep in until 8 a.m. (9 percent). But if your toddler likes to get up at the crack of dawn, you’re not alone—4 percent of respondents said their kids get up before 6 a.m.
What’s a Good Toddler Bedtime Routine?
When your kid was a baby, all you had to do was rock her for a couple of minutes and she would sweetly drift off in your arms and into the land of dreams. With your toddler, on the other hand, it’s not quite so simple.
“Most toddler sleep issues are normal, age-appropriate power struggles,” toddler sleep consultant Jessica Berk explains. “The child is battling for some attention and control.” As such, she says that the best bedtime routine for a toddler is a well-defined series of steps that the child has helped outline. “The steps should be the same every night and don’t need to take more than 10 to 15 minutes.” Think: bath, jammies, brushing teeth, two books, a lullaby, lights out. And because toddlers love control, you can help minimize bedtime drama by letting them pick out their PJs or which books to read, for example. The whole routine should take around 30 minutes.
Don’t stress too much about what the exact steps are—the important thing is to stick to the same ones each night. (One bedtime rule worth sticking to, however, is avoiding screens at least an hour before bed since the blue light sends a signal to the brain that it is time to wake up). “Having a consistent routine helps kids know that sleep is coming and can actually induce drowsiness,” says Berk. “I sang my girls ‘You Are My Sunshine’ every night when they were young and they would start yawning!”
7 of the Most Common Toddler Sleep Issues
“Unlike infant sleep struggles that often come from lack of ability, most toddler sleep problems are related to willfulness,” Elizabeth King of Sleep Baby consultancy says. “They know how to sleep but they don’t want to do what you're asking them to do!” And yeah, toddlers are kind of known for asserting their independence (see: refusal to put on a jacket in the middle of winter or, you know, a massive tantrum before getting into the bath, followed by another tantrum because they don’t want to get out of the bath).
So what’s an exhausted parent who is at their wit’s end to do? “It's important to maintain your healthy sleep boundaries and address the behavior appropriately,” advises King. And in order to do that, you need to address the specific issue head on. Here are the most common sleep issues toddler experience and how to tackle them.
1.The Problem: Your Toddler Keeps Getting Out of Bed
One of the most common toddler sleep problems King sees in her practice is parents moving their toddlers into a big bed before they are developmentally ready. “If a toddler has not fully developed their impulse control (the ability to want to do something and not do it), they will really struggle staying in a big bed all night long.” In other words, your little escape artist will start bouncing out of bed to find mommy at all hours of the night.
The solution: King recommends waiting until as close to 3 years old (or later) before moving your child. “And if they do wake up and come out of their room, have a system in place to remind them to stay in bed!” Calmly but firmly walk your child back to their room and tell them matter-of-factly that it’s time to sleep. (You may have to do this again and again and again until they get the message.)
2. The Problem: Your Toddler Will Do Anything to Avoid Bedtime
When we conducted our sleep survey to see what time kids were going to sleep and waking up, we also asked respondents to tell us about their bedtime routines. And pretty much all parents of toddlers were dealing with some serious delay tactics.
“We do dinner, bath, three books of her choosing, we go outside to say night night to the moon and stars, then precisely five songs, she lays down in her crib, three more songs with intermittent yawning and holding her hand, or sometimes my child tells me what all went on at daycare—she will literally do anything to keep the bedtime routine going. She then asks for milk, potty, socks, you name it. In total, our ritual takes two hours and is very extra,” one mom told us.
“These are all normal behaviors” Walker says, “but if given the opportunity to use them to their advantage, it can really interrupt the bedtime process.”
The solution: “My best advice for this is using a bedtime chart to help give them a little control of the routine, while allowing them to earn a reward at the end of the week,” says Walker. Toddlers love control, remember? And they also thrive on routine, so a chart lets them know what to expect while giving them a little bit of agency. Here are some sweet bedtime charts you can buy and put up in their room to keep things moving.
3. The Problem: Your Toddler Is Getting Up Too Early
You know that no day should start until at least 6 a.m. but annoyingly, your toddler didn’t get the memo. While you can’t exactly force your kid to go back to sleep, you can encourage them to stay in their crib or bed until a more appropriate wake up time.
The solution: Walker recommends getting a wake up clock that turns a specific color when it is time to get up. (Think: red = stay in bed and green = time to wake up.) There are lots of kids' alarm clocks on the market but we’re fans of The Hatch, an all-in-one sound machine, night light and time-to-rise clock that can be controlled via an app from your phone. It may take your toddler a few nights to get the hang of it, but many parents say it works wonders to keep kids in bed until it’s time for the whole family to get up.
4. The Problem: Your Toddler Can Only Fall Asleep with You in the Room
The number one issue caregivers have when they come to Berk’s practice is that bedtime takes over an hour with parents often getting stuck in their child’s room. And as the sleep expert explains, this is a big problem. “Those evenings hours can be vital to parental sanity! Some time to clean up, finish up work, connect with a spouse, veg on the couch—it’s important to have those precious few hours of kid-free time at the end of the day.”
The solution: “The best thing to do is prevent this from happening in the first place,” advises Berk. Meaning encouraging your child to be an independent sleeper from a young age. But if you’re a parent who’s dealing with this issue already, not all hope is lost—you just have to work extra hard to set clear boundaries about bedtime and when you’ll leave the room. “If your kiddo loves long cuddles or talk time, set a timer so you still have that sweet time, but it has a clear ending. If your child expresses fears, use strategic bedtime books, listen and help come up with solutions. Your job is to make sure they know that they’re safe but that doesn’t mean you have to sleep with them.”
5. The Problem: Your Toddler Takes Forever to Fall Asleep
So, you’ve done everything right but it’s 9 p.m. and your kid is still wide awake in her crib. What gives?
The solution: Take a look at what’s happening during the day. “It’s important to make sure your toddler gets plenty of activity and exercise during the day, so they actually feel sleepy in the evenings,” says Dr. Sheldon. And if your toddler spent the afternoon running around the playground but still can’t fall asleep at a reasonable hour, Dr. Barnett recommends switching up their nap time. “It might be that they are napping too long or too late and are simply not tired enough to go to sleep,” she says. The ideal nap length for toddlers is between 1 and 3 hours—anything longer than that and they could struggle to fall asleep at night.
6. The Problem: Your Toddler Has Nightmares
Lots of kids start to have nightmares around the toddler years, which can be very disruptive—for them and parents!
The solution: “For nightmares, offer them comfort and reassurance that they are safe but try not to start any new habits that can become hard to break,” advises Dr. Barnett. There are lots of reasons for nightmares and parents can try to talk to their child during the day to see if there is something that might be stressful for them (oops, maybe watching The Land Before Time with them before bed was a bad idea). “Many toddlers are afraid of the dark and the introduction of a nightlight can be a great way to help alleviate any fears of the dark that they might have,” the sleep expert adds.
7. The Problem: You’re Co-Sleeping with Your Toddler
It was cute (and a total life-saver!) when she was a baby, but now you’re ready to say goodbye to co-sleeping and reclaim your bed. Your toddler has other ideas. “If parents choose to co-sleep with their toddler and everyone is happy and sleeps well, it's fine,” says Berk. But as anyone who’s ever shared a bed with a pint-sized
octapus human knows, usually the only person sleeping well in a co-sleeping situation is said toddler (hello, tiny feet shoved into your back).
The solution: The first step is getting your kid excited about their own bed, says Dr. Barnett. “Maybe get a new pillow or bed cover with their favorite character, and institute a reward program.” Then have a parent sleep with the child in their bed so they get used to being in their own room for a few nights before getting them to stay there solo, advises Berk. Gradually move yourself out of the room over a week or so until they are falling asleep on their own and staying in their bed (see problem number one). It might take them some time to get used to the new set-up, but like everything else in child-rearing, consistency is key.
Sleep Training a Toddler
There are hundreds of books, classes and Instagram accounts dedicated to sleep training a baby, but what about your toddler? Here’s the good news—it’s never too late to sleep train your kid. The bad news is that it’s likely going to take a little longer than with an infant. (Toddler willpower strikes again!)
So how long are we talking? That all depends on the issues on hand. “How long it will take to sleep train a toddler depends on a variety of factors like the child’s age, temperament, how long sleep has been a problem and the strategy that parents use,” says Berk. “But the main factor in how long it will take, is how consistent parents are at following through with a plan to fix it. The more consistent parents are with a new sleep plan, the faster kids can establish great, independent sleep habits.”
With the right plan and consistency, Berk says that kids can learn to fall asleep happily at a reasonable bedtime and sleep for 10 to 12 hours without waking up in about 3 to 14 days. Check out one of these toddler training books or get yourself a certified sleep consultant to help.
Because a good night’s sleep is worth its weight in gold.
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